As preparation for this trip to India that I’m on, I gathered as much Indian literature around me as I thought I might be able to carry. I planned to read the books along the journey and then to leave them or share them with other travelers on the way. But one book, The Death of Vishnu called me to read it before I even left for the US and I’m so glad I did.
The Quiet Death of Contemporary Literature
The reason I stopped reading most literary magazines and why I’m very careful about what books I spend my time on is a trend toward complete lifelessness in much contemporary fiction as one character (usually a thinly veiled stand in for the author) contemplates his or her navel as not much happens. It’s all meant to be portentous or something but usually the connections are only in the author’s mind and not the page and the readers are left flat.
The flooding of the literary market with these kinds of stories and books leaves me adrift in a sea where I’m looking for meaning in all this quiet contemplation (a state of being I deeply love) but because the meaning is not actually processed enough to be communicated, most contemporary quiet fiction makes me feel desperately lonely and disconnected from humanity.
The Death of Vishnu is the exact opposite of that experience. Instead, the story of an impoverished man dying on the steps of an apartment building as the building’s residents go about their daily lives is rich in social commentary, quotidian detail (of the informative type), mythological importance, and even humanity. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Life in India
Mind you, I’ve been out of the enclave that houses the world’s embassies to Delhi for almost one full day, so everything I purport to know about real life in India is deeply flawed, but having read The Death of Vishnu before arriving, I feel like I understand everything better.
In The Death of Vishnu, the households of the apartment are supported by a range of people from the cigarette walla (who brings cigarettes) to the ganga (who brings milk) to Vishnu, the man who washes the families’ dishes. During the few days Vishnu is dying on the steps, we get to know two Hindu families (who are quarreling over such things as the amount of water they can pull from the kitchen they share), a Muslim family (whose son is carrying on a Romeo and Juliet type romance with the daughter of one of the Hindu families and whose father has been exploring enlightenment in other religions), an older man (who lives entirely wrapped in the memory of the woman he loved), and Vishnu (who may or may not be the reincarnation of the god Vishnu).
The details of life I encountered in this book, from the petty squabbles and keeping up with the Joneses of a ladies’ poker party to the way the ambulance system functions (where first the ambulance needs to be paid for and then the payment of resulting medical services guaranteed before the patient can even be removed from the premises) were astounding. I couldn’t believe the way the author packed so much life into so few days. And yes, the story overall is quiet with its petty squabbles and small joys, but the way the author fits the entirety of these characters’ lives into these few pages becomes an amazing reminder that all of these small things are the entirety of life for most of us, no matter where we live.
Halfway around the world from where I belong, I’m finding those small details of the lives of others completely fascinating. From the way the young, thin rickshaw driver pedaled my mom and me around a small section of Old Delhi yesterday—displaying an assuredness that showed how well he could navigate any system and made me imagine how he could (if he would want to) break out of what seemed to me to be a life of hand to mouth existence—to the ingenuity displayed by a group of young men when our bus was blocked into a tight curve by a car—they rocked the car to the point that it was moved out of the way—I feel like there is so much to learn from careful observation of life—both abroad and at home.
Yesterday I saw crazy amounts of wire strewn across tiny streets. I saw crowds of people gathered around watching us watching them. I saw couples on motorbikes and goats staked to the side of the road before they would be eaten. I also saw that this is a country in which things are still repaired rather than being replaced and how many people are employed to do a job that in the US we’d ask one to do. That last bit made me wonder if full employment, or at least the sharing out of some work, doesn’t make everyone happier because the responsibilities are shared and each person in the system is valued. I saw people begging on the streets and hawkers selling everything from washcloths to coconuts in traffic.
Making Meaning of it All
I don’t have the answers to what any of life here, or life in the US, means. And I don’t want to pretend here that I do. But one of the things I learned from reading The Death of Vishnu is that by providing enough pertinent detail, readers can make their own meaning. So when I think that life is missing from much contemporary fiction, maybe what I mean is that detail of experience is missing. Or that we’re so busy listing what’s in a character’s bedroom (a common writing prompt) that we fail to then let him experience life outside of that bedroom—something that would make all of those previous details have import.
One thing the author of The Death of Vishnu relies on to add richness to this story is a relationship to the Bhagavad Gita a sacred Hindu text. And I feel like there are aspects of this book I would have cherished all the more if I were at all familiar with that text. But the author does a wonderful job of weaving in enough information that I could follow along, even if I missed a majority of the allusions. I miss this kind of writing, where one story is leveraged on another, older story. It’s something I tried to do in Polska, 1994 by tying aspects of Magda’s journey to moments in Christ’s life. I don’t think most readers will take that from my book, but for those who do, the meaning will be even greater.
On Being Vague in Book Reviews
You’ll notice I’ve named only one character here and not even the author. That’s the perils of being without my books. I made notes somewhere about all of those things so I’d have them with me, but it’s the middle of the night here and I’d probably wake my mom if I went looking for them. Oh, and I don’t have much internet access, so I’m forced to rely on the (not-so) trusty memory bank.
What I hope for you is that if you’re at all interested in life in India or if you want to know how to make a quiet story read loud, you’ll open this book and discover its characters and all the life therein for yourself. I promise it will be worth your time.
Leave of Absence
While I’m very glad that I read The Death of Vishnu in the US and have the book at home in my collection to read and re-read, I’m now back to reading the novels I had little enough confidence in that I thought I could leave them at home. If I get lucky and find enough joy in one of them (and an internet connection to boot), I’ll share them with you here. And if not, I’ll see you all in November. Thanks for sharing books, and the world, with me.
For other perspectives on what I read while in India, read my experiences of Heat and Dust and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.